I was asked to give a job seeker some advice last week. This is someone who is gainfully employed, has ten years of tenure with their current company, and is good at their job. And despite all that, is looking for more.
As we talked through the options, the tasks and the stories, a question came up that I’ve heard too often.
“How do I explain that I’m looking for a job when I already have one?”
That question is less prevalent now than its counterpart, “How do I explain that I’m unemployed?” The economy being what it is, that one is less difficult to handle. People are unemployed. It happens. Being one of those people no longer has the same stigma it used to, despite what some narrow-minded companies think. (Pro tip: If a company only wants to hire those who already have jobs and are discriminating against the unemployed, you don’t want to work there anyway.)
But let’s look at the first question. If you have a job, why look?
There are plenty of good answers to this one, and you can find them in all the other blogs about interviewing. Looking for new challenges, expanding your horizons, seeking out chances to improve yourself and so forth. All positive, forward looking answers. And certainly nothing along the lines of “I have my job/boss/team/office/customers.”
But there is another level here to discuss, and that’s the story you tell yourself. I know people who have spent years at one job and are very good at it. They like what they do, they like their team, and they are fairly compensated for it. So what makes them take the call from a recruiter who wants to get to know them? What makes the most attractive candidates, who by all accounts should be the most difficult to reach, willing to listen to offers?
I think it comes down to a change in mindset over the last few years. A generation ago, you could realistically spend your who career with one company. Lifetime employment wasn’t just possible, it was nearly expected. Now, we think more of lifetime employability. The workforce is more cognizant of managing their career long term, and are more savvy when it comes to developing portable skills. They have a better understanding of what makes them desirable on the market, and work to keep themselves attractive to recruiters.
A side effect, I think, of all this is that loyalty to the company is dead. It’s ok. Loyalty to the employee died years ago in many cases, so this is a natural development. (I’m not saying there aren’t companies that are loyal to their employees, of course. I know some that very much are. They are just harder to find.) There is no shame in working to develop your skills and market yourself while still being a productive employee. It’s a shift from being loyal to an employer to being loyal to yourself.
I encouraged this person to stop thinking of themselves as an employee, and start thinking more as a free agent, a consultant who at the moment is selling their services to one particular company. They’ve built a good working relationship, and the agreement is going well. But it is one of undetermined length, which could be ended on either side given proper circumstances. In that regard, looking for other potential clients who may offer a better partnership isn’t just OK, it’s good business.
This shift in loyalty is a positive trend. It keeps employees working to sharpen their skills, deliver great work to their current employer, and be prepared to shift if needed. It keeps employers mindful that the way they treat employees matters and that they need to keep the environment attractive enough to retain the talent they have. That’s not to say we should discard the idea of employer loyalty. It has a place in all human interactions, especially when it comes to understanding motivation and actions. But loyalty in today’s workplace is more about mutually beneficial circumstances than a parental employer-employee relationship. And that is a better situation for everyone involved.
Never apologize for trying to better yourself, your job or your future. You’re a free agent. You owe it to yourself.